Finally, after 110 minutes of the thickest tension, gravity and reality collided. The coronation of Manchester City as winners of the 50th women’s FA Cup had long felt pre-ordained, perhaps even inevitable. But not until Georgia Stanway managed to squeeze the ball under the body of Sandy MacIver, with City’s 26th shot of the match, did it feel certain.
It was tough on Everton, but ultimately not unfair. They had scrapped and fought and poured every last ounce of themselves into this contest. They had dragged themselves impressively back into the game courtesy of Valérie Gauvin’s header on the hour. Their goalkeeper MacIver certainly deserved better after producing not so much a string of saves as an entire repertoire of miracles.
But as the minutes ticked away, first the 90 and then the 120, City’s superior class and depth almost invariably found a way through. The fact that their two extra-time goals came from substitutes – Stanway and Janine Beckie with the last kick of the game – illustrated the gulf in resources that still separates these two clubs. City had match-winners all over the pitch, from the dominant Sam Mewis to the superb Caroline Weir, and could even afford an off-day from the celebrated Rose Lavelle.
Still, you wondered if Everton could have been just a little braver at times, just a little more willing to dictate terms against a defence that had not kept a clean sheet since the middle of September. Precious little of the swagger that Everton have shown since the resumption of the Women’s Super League was on evidence here, even if much of the defensive solidity was. In hindsight, the first-half injury to Gauvin was probably a bigger blow than we realised at the time. Though she headed in the equaliser, her lack of mobility badly hindered Everton’s pressing game, a strategy based on fierce running and dynamic counter-attack.
Indeed, from the very start Everton looked feverish and skittish, risk-averse and reactive, too slow to show for the ball and too quick to get rid of it. Despite offering very little attacking threat of their own, City were allowed to settle into the game with long periods of possession. The back four could step up almost to the halfway line, safe in the knowledge that Everton would rarely make them turn. The first time they did, Lucy Bronze was lucky to escape a red card for cleaning out Hayley Raso when she was through on goal.
That seemed to prod both teams awake. MacIver dived bravely at the feet of Mewis, who was beginning to grow ominously into the game. Chloe Kelly, the winger who had done so much to help Everton reach Wembley before her move to City in the summer, had a sharp shot saved at the near post. The Spain international Damaris Egurrola had Everton’s best chance, squeezing a shot just over the bar.
But as the heavens opened and Wembley began to echo to the clatter of rain on the rows of empty plastic seats, City made their move. Weir was beginning to find some joy with threatening bursts from midfield, and after winning a corner six minutes before half-time, Mewis hoisted all six feet of her frame skywards to meet Alex Greenwood’s delivery with a firm header.
Not so long ago, when the relative status of these two clubs was a little more rigidly enforced, that might have been that. City would have cruised to a bloodless victory; Everton would have settled seamlessly into their assigned role of heroic beaten underdogs. The injury to Gauvin, who crumpled in agony to the turf after being taken out by Bronze on the stroke of half-time, was another blow.
But Willie Kirk’s squad are made of sterner stuff these days, and as they emerged for the second half with their star summer signing strapped up and still moving a little gingerly, they seemed to come to the realisation that this game would be won not with the scalpel but with the hammer. Out went the faltering, indeterminate passing around the edge of their own penalty area; in came a renewed vigour on the break and an emphasis on moving the ball with width and pace.
The first sign that Everton had shed their earlier deference came when Egurrola’s well-placed header forced Ellie Roebuck into a superb flying save. From the resulting corner Izzy Christiansen’s delivery was delicious, curling towards the near post where Gauvin – still barely able to run after her injury – could simply divert the ball past Roebuck. It was fitting reward for Everton’s second-half improvement, for Christiansen’s increasing influence in midfield, for Gauvin’s determination to play through the pain barrier.
Yet as normal time wound down it was City who would assert themselves. Weir, who had earlier hit the post, would now have two golden chances to win the game in injury time, missing from eight yards before hitting the bar with a curling shot. City carried that momentum into extra time against a tiring Everton, and when Jess Park slid the ball through for Stanway to slide home from eight yards, you could sense it in Everton’s demeanour and ambience: a team who in body and spirit had nothing left to give.
With the last kick of the game, Beckie ran through to finish a two-on-one and secure victory. Mission accomplished for City, then, and with five trophies up for grabs between now and May this was a fine if slightly unusual way of kick-starting their season. But how they were made to work for it.